Linguistics, Education, and Polarization

In a fantastic summation, +Daniel Estrada describes the Deffuant-Weisbuch (DW) model, a model that describes how interconnected individuals can influence one another's beliefs.  The less certain someone is about their belief, the more that individual could be swayed towards the belief of a more confident individual with whom they interact.  Under the DW model, "extremists" are defined as a minority of people who are very confident about and unlikely to change their beliefs.  As a result, if an individual is uncertain about their belief, they are more likely to be swayed by an extremist.

In our highly polarized political landscape, we tend to find ourselves with a large number of extremists and the normal recourse of moderates is to marginalize or ignore the stubbornly vocal minority.  However, the Deffuant-Weisbuch model illustrates exactly why this marginalizing response exacerbates the polarization issue, rather than fixing it.  On issues with a high degree of uncertainty (like the Affordable Care Act, ACA or the National Security Agency, NSA), individuals are more likely to be pulled further to the extreme edges by extremists.  As the "right of center" moderates find themselves being pulled further to the right, they also affect the centrists with whom they interact; and as the reciprocal actions happen on the "left" side of the spectrum, the political landscape quickly becomes exceedingly polarized.
 
This model only takes into account the way that individuals can affect other individuals throughout their social network, and fails to also consider the way that cognitive linguistics can also help affect the level of uncertainty of the moderates, or the terminology of the extremists.  In fact, Alternet reports that even the New York Times fails to grasp the insidious nature of frame semantics and cognitive linguistics.  Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow,illustrates the automatic and unconscious way in which we process about 98% of our information.  This process of modifying the way people automatically recieve information is commonly referred to as "framing" and marketers (and here lately, even Conservative Republicans) have long since abandoned the idea that all thoughts are conscious (the Cartesian theory) and have succeeded in unconsciously manipulating the opinions of their audiences through creating uncertainty and making the arena ripe for polarization.  "[Liberals] often miss the fact that conservatives have successfully reframed economic terms to fit their values, and that the economic terms in public discourse no longer mean what they do in economics classes."
 
However, the Deffuant-Weisbuch model suggests an alternative to ignoring the extremist problem through instilling a higher confidence in people's beliefs through increased education.  If individuals are more educated on nebulous issues, like the ACA or NSA, it is increasingly unlikely that they will succumb to extreme views on either side of the spectrum.  This makes intuitive sense -- the more you know about an issue, the less likely you are to be swayed by another's opinion; however, the DW model posits that not even specific education is required.

"For instance, consider astrology as an example of an extreme belief, which few people hold with high confidence. In 2008, the NSF found that 78% of college graduates believed that astrology was "not at all scientific", compared with 60% of high school graduates. Although college students rarely receive any formal refutation of astrological claims, their confidence in their education nevertheless reduces the potential influence of the extreme astrological beliefs. This confidence can be instilled whether or not astrological beliefs are engaged directly, and isn't contingent on deliberately avoiding interacting with or censoring that community. In fact, one common way of establishing increased confidence in science is through a contrast with the alternatives like astrology. Science doesn't need to actively marginalize astrology through censorship or avoidance because it is stable even in the presence of extremist alternatives."

It would appear that under the Deffuant-Weisbuch model any education type would be sufficient in reducing the effects of polarization in any given issue.  It's worth mentioning at this point that an individual who is an "extremist" in one issue may not be an extremist in another, but generalized education may help reduce the likelihood of them becoming an extremist in any issue in which they encounter.  This realization is rather remarkable when we consider the ways in which the Halo Effect can affect political discourse and change the ways in which we rationalize and value the information that we receive.


If our schools go the way of our journalists and lose their professional integrity, I find it hard to believe that America will ever find its way back from this polarized landscape that has sprung up as a result of the allowance of television on the congressional floor and reality-TV governance.  Even today, as we look at our news agencies, we see nothing but negative news stories that are proven to "drive ratings" and agencies that take advantage of the halo effect, framing, and this obsession with the negative to frame political discourse in increasingly polarized ways.


If we're unable to change Congress, and studies show we can't, then maybe we can change our population to be less susceptible to extremism, more cognisant of the Halo Effect, and less willing to settle for entertainment news.  The further you dig into the causes of our political system's current state and the defenses against it, the more "education, education, education" comes to the forefront of the discussion.